Tony Romo's performance Sunday was about as Tony Romo as it gets. By the naked eye, it was a classic -- steady with vintage punctuation . There was a moment of extreme heroism, like when he spun out of the arms of the most feared pass rusher in today's NFL and threw a 43-yard touchdown strike. There was also a bad pick -- Romo throwing a soft pass to the end zone from the edge of the red zone right into the hands of Kendrick Lewis.
The stat line -- 28 for 41, 324 yards, two touchdowns and one interception -- feels right. Statistically, it was almost perfectly average. He posted a 98.0 passer rating and 7.78 adjusted yards per attempt (ANY/A), which made it the 61st or 56th best performance among Romo's 113 career starts according to two reasonably good measures of overall quarterback performance, respectively. Romo's Sunday sat almost exactly on his career median.
What made the day special was that the Cowboys won. Dallas has never been good at giving Romo support worthy of his play. The result has been a whisker-thin margin of error for the quarterback for much of his career, making him one of the biggest victims of over-stated hate in recent memory. With one of the best offensive talent groups and a surprisingly good defense, Dallas may finally be ready to do right by their quarterback.
People hate Romo more than they should
This is difficult to properly quantify, of course, but Jon Bois tried anyway about a year ago. He charted quarterbacks' "Approximate Value" -- a Pro Football Reference generated stat to measure overall player performance -- against how often someone somewhere on the Internet wrote "so-an-so sucks," according to Google. The results pointed to Romo as perhaps the most irrationally hated quarterback in the league outside of an early 2013 vintage Robert Griffin III.
The easy answer is that Romo plays on football's gaudiest team, one that has won a lot of championships but none in a relatively long time, and that fanbase frustration and expectation has made life harder for Romo than it should be. That might explain why a quarterback such as Matthew Stafford, who has a career 83.5 passer rating, doesn't take as much grief from a Detroit Lions fanbase whose expectations are zero.
But that answer feels too ephemeral, and may only be part of the problem.
The Cowboys do poorly when Romo plays well
Unfortunately for Romo, simply being "good" hasn't been good enough. When he has been great, so have the Cowboys, who are 31-8 when Romo posts a 110 passer rating or above. When Romo is only a bit better than his median, however, somewhere between a 100 and 110 passer rating, the Cowboys are just 8-6. Last season, non-Romo quarterbacks won 69.6 percent of their games when they posted a passer rating between 100 and 110. Romo is winning those game at just a 57.1 percent clip, and went 1-3 last season.
That 2013 team didn't do much well around Romo. The running game averaged just 94 yards per game, and an injury-riddled defense was dead last in the NFL giving up 415.3 yards per game. And yet it was Romo who absorbed some of the harshest criticism of anyone on the team after the season.
Former NFL general manager Jerry Angelo:
Tony Romo - He has a blind spot. His instincts are just average and his accuracy is not consistent enough given the amount of times they let him wing it and that's what he does...wing it. His mental toughness is suspect and physically he is the danger zone given his two back surgeries.
The Cowboys do well when Romo is mediocre
Conversely, the Cowboys like to win when Romo is sort of "eh." Romo's career record when posting a passer rating between 80 and 90 is exactly the same, 8-6, as when he performs just above standard. In 2013, non-Romos went 40-43-1 for a winning percentage of just 47.6. For whatever reason, how Romo performs has less of an impact on his team than it should for a quarterback, especially given how often the Cowboys pass relative to the rest of the league.
As such, it would be pretty easy for a fan to think the Cowboys are at times winning in spite of Romo, or let a strong performance go unrecognized. Or worse, over state his few mistakes in brilliant performances. His 2013 bout against the Denver Broncos was the pinnacle of the Poor Romo phenomenon. Romo had a career-high 506 yards passing and played well to get there, throwing five touchdowns and posting a 140 passer rating that was his ninth-best ever.
Then he threw a back-breaking interception at the Cowboys' 24-yard line with under two minutes remaining in a 48-48 game. The Cowboys lost on a Matt Prater field goal as time expired. After Romo's career day, the one play that was least indicative of his overall performance became a headline story:
When Romo is bad, the Cowboys are REALLY bad
Before this season began, Cowboys blogger One.Cool.Customer looked at which active quarterbacks are most often "bad" -- by his definition, which quarterbacks most often post quarterback ratings of 66.7 or lower. Among 31 active quarterbacks with at least 32 careers starts, Romo was among the best at avoiding stinkers. He had just 14 bad games among his 106 starts with a minimum of five completions (now, his career total would be 15 in 111 qualifying starts). That meant that Romo had a bad game in 13.2 percent of his starts. Only Aaron Rodgers (7.0), Tom Brady (11.1), Philip Rivers (11.7) and Peyton Manning (12.6) have been better.
One.Cool.Customer found that the combined winning percentage for qualifying quarterbacks posting a 66.7 passer rating or worse is 20.9, which is awful. Again, however, Romo's winning percentage was relatively worse. The Cowboys won just 14.3 percent of the time when Romo had a bad game, which was better than only Derek Anderson (12.5), Chad Henne (7.7), Ryan Fitzpatrick (7.7), Josh Freeman (6.3) and Matthew Stafford (ZERO).
Matt Ryan had far and away the best bad game winning percentage in the league. The Atlanta Falcons were 6-8 in games when Ryan had worse than a 66.7 rating, for a cool 42.9 percent win rate. One.Cool.Customer applied that number to Romo and came out with much rosier picture of the quarterback and the Cowboys' fortunes.
Now consider this hypothetical scenario: Tony Romo has an official career W/L record of 63-45. If Romo had Ryan's win percentage of .429 in poor games, his record in those games would change from 2-12 to 6-8. Similarly, if Romo had Ryan's .944 win percentage in 100+ rating games, his record in those games would rocket from 39-15 to 51-3. Combined, that's a 16-game swing that would give Romo a career record of 79-29 instead of the current 63-45. Think about that. That's the type of player Romo could be - with the right team around him.
This year's Cowboys are really good
Romo's pick against the Texans didn't turn out to be a back breaker. After Houston took over at their own 8-yard line, the Dallas defense held it to a three-and-out. The Cowboys took over at Houston's 30-yard line after a great return by Dwayne Harris, and scored four players later. DeMarco Murray needed just three carries to put the Cowboys on the 2, then Romo found Dez Bryant, who abused his defender to get open for the score. All Romo's turnover accomplished was delaying a touchdown by a couple minutes.
The turnover-to-touchdown sequence was exactly why this year's Cowboys might be special. Last year's defensive breakdowns haven't been an issue this season -- the Cowboys are giving up just 20.6 points per game, and are tied for 10th with nine takeaways this season. The offense might be one the league's best for other than Romo -- Bryant is a physical marvel, Murray is staying healthy and everyone is benefiting from one of the NFL's best offensive lines.
The Cowboys have just one loss, falling, 28-17, to the San Francisco 49ers in a game in which Romo was admittedly awful. He looked physically unprepared after undergoing offseason back surgery, throwing loopy passes on his way to one touchdown pass, three interceptions and a 60.8 passer rating. The Cowboys are 4-0 since, and Romo hasn't posted a passer rating worse than 93.5. In fact, steadily improved immediately after the season opening loss, cresting into in a blowout win over the Saints in Week 4, when he went 22 for 29 for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
That game deviated from what we supposedly know about Romo and the Cowboys. For once, the quarterback didn't have to overexert himself. He picked apart a struggling Saints defense bit by bit (his longest completion was 24 yards on a day he averaged 9.04 yards per attempt), Murray pounded his way to 149 yards, and the defense forced three Saints turnovers.
It felt like Romo's performance received its proper payoff. Finally, after 10 seasons, the Cowboys may be good enough to set his record straight.